Thursday, 14 October 2010

Poker Face

Former Israeli UN Ambassador and Foreign Minister Abba Eban famously chastised the Palestinians for ‘Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Well, times seem to have changed. Responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer to extend the settlement freeze by 60 days in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the most senior politicians within the PLO and the PA, stated that the PA would recognize Israel as “whatever it wants” – if Israel would recognize a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem.

For those who follow the give and take of Mideast diplomacy, Abed Rabbo’s gambit is a non-starter on many levels. Firstly, from a purely political perspective, no Israeli Prime Minister has made concessions on Jerusalem since its reunification, and none interested in maintaining power will do so. Further, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conditions set out in his Bar-Ilan speech last year also include the total demilitarization of a nascent Palestinian state, and the solution of the Palestinian refugee issue outside of Israel’s borders. These are predicates that no Palestinian leader interested in maintaining power (or even staying among the living) could ever countenance.

Notwithstanding the posturing, a number of remarkable things are happening in this conversation. Though they have determined not to continue direct talks for the moment, the Palestinians are, in fact, negotiating in the court of public opinion. Positions are responded to, and new positions taken. These may ultimately lead nowhere, but the fact that this discussion is occurring at all represents a give-and-take that hasn’t been seen in years.

Another remarkable element of the conversation is the fact that the Palestinian leadership has seemingly outmaneuvered Prime Minister Netanyahu. In this high stakes poker game, the Palestinians have seen the Prime Minister’s “Jewish state” and raised him “1967 borders”. As the Palestinians know, Israel has over the past 15 years frittered away its leverage. Gaza is gone, roadblocks are reduced, settlements restrained, if not still frozen. It has received precious little in return, except perhaps some time, which has now run out. A 60 day settlement freeze was a transparent and far too limited offer to be taken seriously, if that was its intent. If it was simply a PR bone thrown to the Americans, it has been chewed up and thrown back.

It might seem that Israel is in tough, but the PA is in no less of a difficult spot. Its recent prosperity depends on Israeli cooperation (one last bit of leverage left), it continues to be an economic supplicant to the Arab League, the EU, and the UN, it can’t maintain credibility even when it is refusing concessions, and its President Mahmoud Abbas is constantly looking over his shoulder at Hamas and Iran.

No amount of American pressure will force either Netanyahu or Abbas to commit political suicide, so little progress can be expected, even if the conversation continues. Abba Eban also famously said “Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” If there is an alternative to be found, perhaps there is some hope in the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians are approaching the point of exhaustion.